Elizabeth Lail finds ‘overnight success’ as Frozen’s Anna on Once Upon A Time

During one of her first days of rehearsal for the hit ABC drama Once Upon a Time, an assistant director approached Elizabeth Lail (HS ’10, ’14) — who starred in Season 4 of the series as the impulsive Princess Anna from Disney’s Frozen — carrying a medieval weapon.

“Have you ever held a sword?” he asked.

“Are you kidding?” Lail remembers thinking to herself. “I’ve spent the past three years preparing for this exact moment!”

Like all students in the School of Drama at UNCSA, Lail punched and stabbed and tumbled her way through dozens of hours of stage combat training under acclaimed fight director and choreographer Dale Anthony Girard. Lail, like many UNCSA drama alumni, is certified by the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) in unarmed combat, knife, broad sword, single sword, rapier and dagger.

Safe to say, this princess knows her way around a lethal weapon. 

Long before she was battling Snow Queens in the fictional town of Storybrooke, Lail was a regular kid growing up in Asheboro, North Carolina. Like other little girls, she would dress up as Belle and Jasmine, never imagining that she would one day get to play a real Disney princess — not to mention a global pop culture phenomenon — on network TV.

“It’s kind of a shock when your dreams become a reality,” says Lail, who landed the role on Once Upon a Time less than two months after graduating from UNCSA. “I wish there was some magic trick I could share — ‘This is how you book your dream job!’ The stars have to align. All it takes is one person to believe in you and your whole world changes.”

Before Once Upon a Time began shooting in the summer of 2014, Lail had never been on a TV set before. But that doesn’t mean she felt unprepared. 

"I didn’t know anything about the logistics of working on a TV set, but I knew that I knew how to act,” says Lail. “That’s something I learned at UNCSA."

Lail first heard about UNCSA through a school friend who attended the Drama High School program for high school seniors. Already an actor in high school and local community theatre productions, Lail signed up for UNCSA’s summer intensive acting program the very next summer. Five weeks later, she was hooked.

“I fell in love with the spirit of the school,” says Lail. “I grew up in a small town, so this was my first time being part of a true artistic community, surrounded by people who wanted to create things and were excited about what art can do in the world.” 

After that transformative summer in Winston-Salem, Lail enrolled in the one-year high-school program. And when it came time to apply to college, Lail says it was a “no brainer” to choose UNCSA’s nationally respected conservatory program in drama. “I had found my home and wanted to stay,” she says.

It was in this tight-knit, rigorous and inspiring environment that Lail met her closest mentor, assistant dean of the School of Drama Mary Irwin. Irwin’s specialty is voice, speech and Shakespeare, and she teaches a method of voicework learned firsthand from Kristin Linklater, author of "Freeing the Natural Voice". 

“Mary Irwin is my favorite person in the entire world, and for me, voicework is the foundation of my acting,” Lail says. “Voicework is about discovering the true voice inside of you, which is being held back by tensions and fears accrued over a lifetime of experiences.”

Lail will never forget the moment in Irwin’s Shakespeare class when her true voice — not her “actor’s” voice, but her own authentic voice — finally shined through. 

“I was working on a monologue from 'A Winter’s Tale',” Lail remembers. “And I just transformed into Paulina, because I had the foundation of voicework and my heart was open to it. Just those two things — and I’ve seen it time and time again — can take actors above and beyond what they thought they were capable of.”

Although Winston-Salem is far from the entertainment hubs of New York and Los Angeles, UNCSA is very much on the radar of industry scouts and casting agents. Lail met her current manager when he visited campus to sit in on mock auditions. She booked her agent after traveling to LA for the annual Senior Showcase, a chance for industry reps to meet UNCSA’s graduating classes of young actors and filmmakers.

Even with her seemingly overnight success, Lail says the transition from student actor to working professional wasn’t easy at first. Her initial auditions in New York were downright “scary.”

“UNCSA is such a safe space for an actor, where it’s OK to fail,” says Lail. “New York feels like the opposite — failure will lose you a job. To avoid being petrified during auditions, I had to be really proactive about getting back to that voicework and remembering how to relax. Your headspace as an actor is just as important as your talent.”

Lail knows that she’s incredibly lucky and is overwhelmed with gratitude for the people that helped prepare her for this moment. More than the fame or financial rewards, Lail says that it’s the people in her life that are most important.

"The absolute greatest thing about UNCSA is the people,” Lail says. “You create this family of an ensemble. The incredible relationships I formed at school and the new friends I’ve made at work are what bring me joy and keep me wanting to be an actor."

Touché, princess.